Nations turn to lobbyists amid Trump upheaval

Nations turn to lobbyists amid Trump upheaval
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No matter where they go, Washington’s lobbyists are finding they can’t escape President Trump.

Lobbyist Nathan Daschle recalled a trip in December to a country that had been in Trump’s crosshairs during the presidential campaign. Scheduled prior to Election Day, he was set to speak with government officials, think tanks, religious leaders and private-sector companies and groups and hold business development meetings.

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But once he arrived, Daschle found the discussion was all Trump, all the time.

“It dominated the conversation,” said Daschle, president and COO of the Daschle Group.

“Since the election, people from our team have been essentially all over the world, and the reaction has been exactly the same. There is a shock and bewilderment and an obsessiveness with our new administration,” Daschle said.

Countries have long turned to K Street to help them navigate Washington. But Trump’s unpredictable approach to foreign policy is generating more interest in the capital than ever before as countries seek to stay ahead of the curve.

“It’s natural for a foreign government that does a lot of business in Washington and the United States to have a learning curve of any administration,” said a lobbyist that has represented foreign government clients for two decades but asked not to be named. “There’s the natural ebb and flow of getting to know new staff, new messages, new approaches.”

Some countries are already hiring up for the Trump era.

Iraq, for example, recently signed a contract with the law and lobby giant Brownstein Farber Hyatt Schreck. Iraq is one of the seven countries whose citizens would be temporarily banned from entering United States under Trump’s recent executive order.

Brownstein will “communicate with congressional leadership, administration officials, and senior agency staff on issues related to Iraq, immigration, defense, economics, and overall foreign policy,” according to disclosure forms signed on Jan. 31.

The firm did not respond to requests for comment. 

On Jan. 27, Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning people from seven Muslim-majority countries from coming into the United States. The order, which, along with Iraq, includes Iran, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia, ensnared green-card and visa holders until a federal court halted implementation.

  While some countries with large Muslim populations have a giant roster of Washington consultants — such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which have more than a dozen firms on retainer — others such as Egypt, India and Iraq only have a few firms. Pakistan’s government has none.

Countries around the world are still grappling with Trump’s win and what it could mean for them. 

Trump has stuck with the positions he carved out during the presidential campaign, including his insistence that Mexico should pay back the U.S. for a wall along the southern border. 

He has also taken a tough stance on Iran, with his administration putting the country “on notice” for a ballistic missile test. 

Since the inauguration, Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders have at times made waves.

Reports suggested that Trump had a terse phone call with the prime minister of Australia, who struck a deal with then-President Obama to accept 1,250 refugees into the United States — many of them from countries covered by Trump’s travel ban.

While Trump called the agreement a “dumb deal” on Twitter, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and the White House have said that the president will honor it.

Still, the possibility that the Trump White House could act aggressively toward allies has unnerved some.

“The United States for decades has set the tone for conversations” internationally, said Daschle, whose father, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), founded the Daschle Group after leaving Congress.

“Set aside the normative question of ‘do you like Trump?’ The empirical question is, will Trump have any credibility around the world, even if he wants to do something?”

Daschle compared countries viewing the change in American leadership to a person figuring out that a parent is an alcoholic.

Several lobbyists told The Hill that it is too early to begin direct advocacy on behalf of foreign clients under Trump. Right now, they’re focused on helping governments analyze the political environment. 

One lobbyist has been telling clients that Trump’s maneuvering on foreign policy should be taken as political, not personal.

Clients need to know “this is the political reality of how this guy got elected,” said a GOP lobbyist with foreign clients who also asked not to be named. “He’s going to keep feeding chum off the back of the boat like in ‘Jaws.’ What really matters is over here, and not what he’s saying over there.”

If personnel is policy, however, many foreign nations are comforted by the individuals Trump is appointing to Cabinet posts, said a fifth lobbyist with foreign governments clients, including in Africa and the Middle East.

“Most of the relevant Cabinet members are fairly well known in the international community,” said the lobbyist, specifically mentioning Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.

Potentially more than any other recent presidency, though, Trump’s tenure could be a boon for K Street.

Multiple lobbyists told The Hill that they’re hearing about more foreign governments seeking representation.

“We’re still in the first inning of this game, but there is a lot of chatter going on, which should make for a fertile environment for those representing foreign government clients,” said the first unnamed lobbyist.